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I Like Going to Oz
An interview with Billy Collins

(Issue 19, Winter 2014)


Billy Collins, who has been described in the New York Times as ‘the most popular poet in America’ was born in Manhattan in 1941.
   ‘Rebel Without a Cause came out when I was 14, and it was just the beginning of Beat literature, and there was rock and roll. I became an adolescent right around the invention of adolescence, you know. I was an only child so I had lots of time alone and I was posing as a kind of semi-beatnik jazz lover so I had to seek out certain friends. I took myself very seriously. My mother called me the original teenager. I think my timing was perfect.
   ‘We lived in Queens, which then was a very white, middle-class neighbourhood. I had 16 years of Catholic education, so when I got to graduate school in Southern California it was the first time I’d been in a classroom with a female since the eighth grade …
   ‘That was 1964. I was 21. I saw the Rolling Stones when they played with James Brown, in ’65, I think. I’d never been west of the Mississippi before and the first thing I realised was that I didn’t know much about English literature because in the Jesuit college I’d been to you really majored in theology. I was really embarrassed about these holes in my education, so for the first year I did nothing but read. I just pretty much stayed to myself. I’d drive around a little bit on the weekends, but I basically just read for a year – Alexander Pope and Coleridge and Shakespeare – and then I got on and partied for the rest of the time.
   ‘I used to go to London every summer to work for my father’s company, and I brought a Sunbeam Alpine back home from England on the Queen Mary. I was a British car nut. I had a couple of old Porsches too. This sounds like I was very affluent but the first Porsche cost $800. It was just a junk heap car. I had a flat just in the back of Harrods first, but then for quite a few summers I lived at 60 Onslow Gardens, I think it was. My father’s company was an insurance brokers so they would funnel American business into Lloyd’s. So I’d work in the City. But when I say “work” I’d have to put quotation marks around that. I mean one year I just took the Alpine and drove around Europe for a few weeks or so. Great times. There was a Lloyd’s yacht club and they had this beautiful 70-foot racing yawl, and so a lot of weekends I’d go down and we’d go on these races across the Channel. We’d start at Southampton in the evening and we’d race all night, over to Saint Valery en Caux, these little towns in Normandy.’
   Collins joined the English faculty at Lehman College in the Bronx in 1968 after completing a PhD in Romantic Poetry. He has been teaching ever since.
   ‘Sometimes if I teach a workshop that goes on for more than a few hours I have the students do an imitation of a William Carlos Williams poem called ‘Nantucket’. It’s just maybe a 10-line poem where he describes a room with some flowers, a glass on the table … I have them describe a place, but in plain language. I tell them, I don’t want to know what you think about this, how it makes you feel. I just want you to kind of photograph it in language, and they find it very hard to do. Not that I’m saying that you need to write like that all the time but it’s good to be able to do so, especially at the beginning of a poem. I think Stephen Dobyns said if you get readers to accept something simple and undeniable in the beginning they will be inclined to accept something more difficult, more challenging, later on in the poem. Most singers know this. It’s risky in a way to be plainspoken or straightforward because the reader knows what you’re doing. I think a lot of younger poets use language as a kind of camouflage. I think plainspokenness is confused with simplemindedness.
   ‘A favourite analogy of mine for the poem is the eye chart, where you have this big E at the top of the chart when you take an eye test. A poem should start with a big E, you know, something everybody can recognise. The gambit of the poem is not making any demands on you emotionally or intellectually. It’s sort of setting something up that’s undeniable. Something like “I’m sitting here at the window with this tree. It’s snowing …” I mean, the reader can’t say, bullshit, I don’t buy it. And then as the letters get smaller the poem can move into areas of ambiguity and subtlety, or fantasy and hypothesis. The poem should start in Kansas and get to Oz, you know. A lot of poems start in Oz. I like going to Oz but I want to be taken there.
   ‘A window is very important to me as a framing device. I think fiction writers are people who are looking in other people’s windows, peeping toms. But the poet is looking out his or her window and saying this is the way I see the world. Frank McCourt, who was a friend of mine, once said, “I tried to write one of these poems. I thought, there he is, he’s looking out the window and there’s a tree there … and I couldn’t do it. It was very funny,” he said. “It just seems like something anybody can do …”
   ‘I was trying to write like a beatnik when I was younger, trying to write like Wallace Stevens, trying all sorts of tricks. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to be a poet. It took people like Philip Larkin and Charles Simic and some of the New York School and California poets to show me that first of all you could be funny, but that you could also be conversational.’
Collins’ first collection, Pokerface, was published in 1977. His phenomenal popularity as a poet came relatively late. ‘Right after this book called Picnic, Lightning came out in the late ’90s I was on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and then Terry Gross’s programme Fresh Air. Both of those appearances exposed me to between 3 and 4 million listeners. And the people who listen to them are the audience for this kind of poetry – college-educated, book-buying people who I think have a thirst for poetry. That made an exponential difference.
   ‘When I became Poet Laureate I couldn’t just go out there and say, “Read more poetry,” because I think a lot of poetry’s not worth reading, and so I started this program called Poetry 180, showcasing 180 poems I thought were really good. It became a website, and two anthologies later it spun itself as a way of getting poetry into the classroom and getting people who had stopped reading back into poetry. I could bang the drum for those poems, but I couldn’t just bang it generally for poetry. It was easy to find about 80 poems I liked. But then I had to go to the Poets House in New York, which has a 50,000 volume library, and just spend hours and hours looking for poems. For every poem that got into the book, I must have read, I don’t know, maybe 50 poems or more, and of those 50 I wouldn’t finish most of them. You’d just get to some point where you felt, I’m not buying into this. That’s what I tell my students. They think they know where their poem ends, that wonderful last line they wrote, but that’s not where their poem ends, their poem ends where the reader stops reading it. It’s easier said than done, but the idea is don’t give your reader a reason to stop.
   ‘I think in America poetry is moving a little closer to the centre. There are just a lot of good poets around these days, and there are lots of readings. The trouble is though if you go to a poetry reading most of the people in the audience are poets or wannabe poets, and so it’s an ever-widening and augmenting world but it’s a closed system. There are some poets – I think I’m one of them – who are for some reason breaking that circle. My audience is made up of people who aren’t necessarily poets but just want to hear poetry.
   ‘I try not to dramatise when I’m giving a reading. Sometimes, to popularise poetry, they’ll get actors to the Town Hall in New York or something and they’re awful. I try to read almost as if I were a living page. I began as a very nervous reader. I just had to figure out how to slow down and enjoy it. Being in a classroom for hundreds of years, yeah, that helps.
   ‘I’m sometimes described as someone who is championing the spread of poetry, but of course that’s the last thing on my mind. I really just try to write one good poem after another.’